Wednesday, September 1, 2004

What is terrorism?

In the days since September 11, 2001 (and, well, before that date as well) the label "Terrorist Organization" has been slapped on many groups. That label is used to justify attacks on those groups, and attempted destruction of them. The label, though, has been used pretty broadly and with little understanding of what it really means. For example some groups are labeled "freedom fighters" and others labeled "terrorists" but they both commit the same kind of actions.

For example there is a Kurdish movement covering parts of Turkey, Iraq and the former Soviet Union that does not have a country of their own, and in Turkey are fighting for their freedom and autonomy. In order to gain Turkey's assistance in the war on Terrorism, Turkey has been allowed to label their Kurds as a terrorist group. At the same time the U.S. has been protecting the Kurds in northern Iraq. Are the Kurds in Turkey fighting for their freedom, and thus the good guys, or are they scummy evil terrorists? And what of the Kurds in northern Iraq, who were instrumental in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003? Seems the difference is one of a point of view, and the differing treatment serves only to confuse the viewer over what the word means. Similar things could be said of the Palestinian resistance and its many organizations. Are they fighting to free their land from the usurping Israeli's, or are they evil terrorists? And in the former fight by the African National Congress against the apartheid regime formerly ruling South Africa, the ANC committed many gruesome acts but was generally lauded as fighting for freedom against the evil apartheid regime. See? This "terrorism" word cuts both ways, and we don't really know what it means.

The word "terrorism" has an obvious meaning. Namely, it would be a military strategy in which the proponent causes events to happen that invokes terror in a target population. That terror then is expected to cause the target population to do some response out of fear, and the proponent aims to control the response of the target population to achieve some end. In other words there would be a psychological element to the attack in addition to the physical element.

For example, in the second Gulf War currently being fought, the main tactic in the opening of the war was called "Shock and Awe". This was a massive bombing campaign of epic proportions. The massive scale of the bombing was supposed to shock the Iraqi's into surrendering. In other words, that was a terror tactic, to terrify the Iraqi's into surrender. Does that mean the U.S. government is itself a terrorist organization? Certainly not, the government would have us believe, but undeniably the strategy was one of inciting terror and inducing a desired response to that terror. And it depends on what definition you use for "terrorism", as the official definition used by the U.S. State Department identifies terrorist acts as ones that are done against civilian (non-military) targets. Under the definition I gave above, the U.S. government would be a terrorist organization.

To be honest, any military attack or battle incites terror in the soldiers involved in the fighting ("war is hell", after all) and often this terror-incitement is purposely enhanced to try and cause the "enemy" to surrender with less fighting. That's likely why the State Department definition does not include military targets in the definition. Military units are obviously trained to deal with the terror induced by war activities, and are also to be expected to receive those kinds of actions against them. Civilians do not have this training, and do not have the expectation of being attacked by military forces. This distinction made by the State Department is useful. Though there is a further distinction, that military that are off-duty yet are attacked, their attackers can be labeled "terrorists". Well, this seems to be a funny distinction. Should not troops in a war zone be expecting attack at any time? Would not an attacking force, coming across a contingent of their enemy, seeing them in a relaxed and unarmed state, want to attack them when they're at their weakest?

The border between "Freedom Fighter" and "Terrorist" is largely determined on your viewpoint. Al Queda no doubt has fans in the Middle East who see them in a highly positive light as fighting for Muslim Ideals in a world that is increasingly slanted to Corporate and Consumption based ideals. Not that I am attempting to defend the Taliban or Al Queda, but am merely trying to illustrate the point. Another, cleaner, example is the difference of opinion over Tibet, where the Chinese government sees Tibetan Buddhists as a terroist organization, while the rest of the world sees Tibet as an occupied land, the people scattered to the wind or abused by the Chines government, and with their leader in exile.

Here's another example:

[August 22, 2003; San Diego NBC] Arson At Hummer Dealership May Be Ecoterrorism ( WEST COVINA, Calif. -- Fire raged through a Hummer dealership in the Los Angeles area Friday morning, and graffiti spray-painted on many of the damaged vehicles indicated that the fire was set intentionally. Dozens of SUV's were vandalized at three other dealerships, prompting the FBI to investigate the incidents as acts of domestic terrorism. ... "With all the evidence ... its highly likely it's an arson fire," said Rick Genovese, fire marshal for West Covina. ... Video from the helicopter of NBC 7/39's sister station in Los Angeles showed slogans spraypainted on the hoods and sides of several SUVs, including "I (heart) pollution," "Fat Lazy Americans" and "American Wastefulness. One vehicle had the letters "ELF" sprayed on a door.

First, obviously whoever set this fire broke several laws, and should be punished for the illegal vandalism. What's shocking is the escalation of rhetoric. At one level you have a case of arson, and but for the slogans painted on the vehicles that's all it would be. By calling this "Eco Terrorism" the level of hyperbole raises considerably, doesn't it?

How is painting a few slogans of the sort quoted here to be causing "terror" in anybody? Yes, it's a clear political statement tied to an illegal act. Yes there are extremists in the Ecology movement who believe they must act to gum up the works of capitalism through direct action of this sort. But, does that make it "terrorism"? What does this word, "terrorism", mean?

And another example

[May 29, 2004; Counter Punch;] Protest Torture of Animals; Get Arrested as a "Terrorist"

The Bush administration sent a calculated message to grassroots political activists this week: The War on Terrorism has come home.

FBI agents rounded up seven American political activists from across the country Wednesday morning, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey held a press conference trumpeting that "terrorists" have been indicted.

That's right: "Terrorists." The activists have been charged with violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 1992, which at the time garnered little public attention except from the corporations who lobbied for it. Their crime, according to the indictment, is "conspiring" to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company that tests products on animals and has been exposed multiple times for violating animal welfare laws.

... Bush's War on Terrorism is no longer limited to Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden. It's not limited to Afghanistan or Iraq (or Syria, or Iran, or whichever country is next). And it's not limited to the animal rights movement, or even the campaign against Huntington Life Sciences. The rounding up of activists on Wednesday should set off alarms heard by every social movement in the United States: This "war" is about protecting corporate and political interests under the guise of fighting terrorism.

... Some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet, and the U.S. Attorney's Office must protect them from a bunch of protesters. This is what the War on Terrorism has become: The Bush administration can't find real terrorists abroad, yet it spends law enforcement time and resources protecting corporations from political activists.

The horses mouth

Given the confusion over what the word means, how about we turn to the U.S. State Department. We know they have experts on Terrorism, so let's see what we can find there.

Terrorism: A War Without Borders ( is an instructional package produced by the United States Department of State in collaboration with a special committee of social studies educators. The video [Cable/DSL, Dial-Up, Audio], print materials, and other resources in this package are intended for use with middle school and high school courses.

Progress Report on the Global War on Terrorism [Sep 10, 2003;]

Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003 [ and] The previous two items were linked for reference sake, this has an interesting actual definition that is pretty useful. It's interesting to note they too talk about the unclarity over what the word is supposed to represent.


No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance. For the purposes of this report, however, we have chosen the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d). That statute contains the following definitions:

  • The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant1 targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.
  • The term international terrorism means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.
  • The term terrorist group means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

The US Government has employed this definition of terrorism for statistical and analytical purposes since 1983.

Domestic terrorism is probably a more widespread phenomenon than international terrorism. Because international terrorism has a direct impact on US interests, it is the primary focus of this report. However, the report also describes, but does not provide statistics on, significant developments in domestic terrorism.

1 For purposes of this definition, the term noncombatant is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty. For example, in past reports we have listed as terrorist incidents the murders of the following US military personnel: Col. James Rowe, killed in Manila in April 1989; Capt. William Nordeen, US defense attache killed in Athens in June 1988; the two servicemen killed in the Labelle discotheque bombing in West Berlin in April 1986; and the four off-duty US Embassy Marine guards killed in a cafe in El Salvador in June 1985. We also consider as acts of terrorism attacks on military installations or on armed military personnel when a state of military hostilities does not exist at the site, such as bombings against US bases in Europe, the Philippines, or elsewhere.

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